Sunday, March 16, 2014

A tough luck building comes back in Pioneer Square

The cool thing about historic preservation is that the act of renovating buildings releases all the stories closed up in them.  As people start tearing away the exterior and interior layers covering all the supposed blemishes, the spirits of the buildings rise from the now uncovered spaces, finding their way to permitting counters, historic preservation bureaucrats, tax lawyers, the real estate sections of daily newspapers, archives holding old photos, now dusted off and posted on the Internet for all to see.  After a time, people can see most of the old stories freshly, as if brand new, a perspective that enriches the old stuff, and even reveals new material that people never knew, or somehow forgot. 

The stories also find their way to prospective tenants, like our company, Gallatin Public Affairs, now getting ready to move to Pioneer Square in a few weeks, to a complex of two newly renovated buildings, together called the Pacific Commercial Building, where the stories bounce around the streets as visible and animated as Casper or the Canterbury Ghost.

Located at 240 Second Avenue South, the building we will occupy, the light yellow sandstone fronted Pacific Commercial Building, is a structure with many names and is central to the story of early electricity development and distribution, to the rise of an idea about a Pacific Rim economy in the form of the first Seattle world’s fair, the Alaska Pacific Yukon Exposition in 1909.  It tells us about a time when Seattle truly became a city, tripling its size in a decade.  The narrative tells us about a Japanese businessmen who thrived in the town as did his businesses, accepted as a leader in a city that sometimes was uncomfortable with the idea of different people.  Like all stories playing out over many years, some characters in the narrative do better than others. 

University of Washington Collections
First, it was the Baker Building, originally erected by Charles H.  Baker, president of the Seattle Cataract Company and built for the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company, both of which he owned.  Baker came from a wealthy Chicago family – his dad was head of the Chicago Board of Trade and a key organizer of the Columbian World’s Fair in 1893.  It is hard not to wonder if his fascination with electricity came from his father’s association with the Chicago World’s Fair.  It is an amazing fact that nearly every incandescent light bulb available then in the world was deployed in Chicago for the fair.  As a young man of just 23, he came to Seattle to work for the Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern Railway, what we now know as the Burke Gilman Trail, after the owners of the railroad. 

Working on an extension of the SL& E that would go close by Snoqualmie Falls, he became obsessed with generating electricity at the falls.  He liked to call the falls the “wasting waterfall,” because he felt it wasn’t properly put to work.  This is an early demonstration of the different perspectives of Native Americans and early businessmen like Baker.  To the natives, the mists that rose from the collision of water and rock at the bottom of the waterfall were the souls of Native American ancestors, rising and floating above their millennial habitat. 

At Snoqualmie Falls, Baker created the first underground generating station in the world.  Keeping, it underground, incidentally, kept the the mists and souls floating about.  He built the two story Baker building in 1900 to act as an electrical substation that would receive the power generated at the falls and distribute it to the growing fleet of street cars in
University of Washington Collections
Seattle and Tacoma and ultimately to businesses and homes.  But there was no tougher game than the early electricity business.  Stone and Webster, the Boston-based electricity cartel, had taken over Seattle and owned the City Council and had helped them write franchise restrictions that effectively froze out Baker. A smear campaign in Tacoma, likely organized by Stone and Webster, kept Baker on the outside looking in there. 

Baker's substation in 1900
University of Washington Collections
His power plant built and his two story substation complete, Baker was still unable to sell much of his electricity.  For the first four months of the year 1900, Baker ran an ad in several newspapers each day for weeks.  It said:

Seattle Light! The only light!
You can’t get it!
Ask the City Engineer

If you had asked City Engineer Reginald Heber Thomson, he would have offered this answer: 

“Because I am the one who should supply electricity to Seattle.” 

Thomson is to Seattle what Robert Moses was to New York.  Just about everything hearkens back to Thomson, along with what you don’t see.  The zenith of tearing down the hills of Seattle and turning those spaces into flat land was in the Thomson era.  Lake Washington’s shoreline belongs, in large part, to Thomson.  The Magnolia Beach sewage treatment plant location is his.  He helped establish the Port of Seattle and built Harbor Island.  If you are using it today, Thomson likely had a hand in building it long ago.

RH Thomsen
Thomson didn’t become City Engineer until 1892, but he was the Seattle Surveyor when the Great Fire in 1889 burned 64 acres of Seattle’s commercial center to the ground.  The many small private water companies that supplied water for fire suppression performed pathetically. The city burned while they dribbled. Thomson and the rest of the city’s leadership decided to keep fire safety and drinking water in their own hands and promptly offered up the idea of Seattle owning its own water system, first from Lake Washington and Lake Union and culminating in the development of the Cedar River 38 miles east of Seattle.  The Cedar was approved in 1895 and finished in 1900.  A Seattle–owned dam and powerhouse on the Cedar was approved in 1902 and the new municipal utility started delivering electricity in 1905.

Electricity was really expensive then.  Stone and Webster’s Seattle Electric Company began selling it for 20 cents/kwh for the first two hours of use, then declining to 12.5 cents/kwh as usage continued for the rest of the day.  When Seattle’s municipal utility came on line, it charged 8.5 cents for the first 20 kwh, then 7.5 for the next 20 kwh, then 4.5 cents for the next 20.  Within a year or two, Stone and Webster was charging about the same.  Thirty years later, when President Roosevelt was advocating publicly-owned electricity, he hearkened back to Seattle’s experience, calling publicly-owned power “the yardstick by which prices are set.”  The two companies competed head to head for nearly 50 years, Stone and Webster poles on one side of the street, the municipal utility on the other side.

Charles Baker
The year 1903 started out optimistically for Baker.  He announced in February that he was adding three floors to the Baker Building.  He had come to believe it was not suitable for a substation, but rather as office space for the booming city.  But then, Baker’s Snoqualmie generating plant caught fire – something Baker attributed to arson --and ruined much of his equipment.  Then his father died.  Baker had built the Snoqualmie Plant with money loaned to him by his father, but there was no paperwork and his father left no will.  Baker was frozen out once again.  Stone and Webster bought the power plant from the estate and George Stetson, a timber baron, bought the Baker Building, now five stories tall, from the lawyers in 1906.  Baker left for Florida, defeated, where he sold real estate.  His wife and three children remained in Seattle.

One of Baker’s tenants was Masajiro Furuya, among the most successful businessmen in the town and deeply respected.  Serious, a devout Methodist, he was a quiet leader in not only the Japanese community, but in the business community generally.

UW Collections
After teaching and service in the Japanese Army, where he was exposed to the sophistication of Tokyo, Furuya contemplated coming to America. A thoughtful guy, he knew that without a skill, he would never be more than a laborer in America, so he apprenticed himself to a tailor in Japan.  Arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1890, he spent a month in Seattle, then three months in Chicago and six months in St.  Louis. Seattle was his choice.  He came back in 1892 and opened a grocery store at Third and Yesler which also housed his tailoring business.

He was one of the first tenants of the Baker Building when it opened in 1900, occupying a storefront that faced out to both
Furuya's Store in 1900
University of Washington Collections
Second Avenue on one side and just to the left of the main entrance on the other.  The local Japanese Association had a large room just above Furuya on the second floor.  In 1900, there would have been nearly 4,000 Japanese living in Seattle. 

In the Baker Building, Furuya’s business was changing and growing.  He imported Japanese art objects, displaying them in the expanding downtown north of Pioneer Square at Second and Columbia.  He begin serving the construction industry in the northwest, bringing in Japanese labor as a labor contractor for the large projects that kept the boom going.  He created a sales force to sell Japanese goods to a
growing Japanese population across the western US on farms and in logging camps.  He provided foodstuffs to the Japanese military as Russia and Japan headed into a conflict in the Pacific that the Japanese would handily win.  His success made him someone a person could go to for a loan and he sometimes provided informal banking services to the Japanese businesses clustered around the Baker Building and on east up Jackson Street. 

The historian Ron Takaki writes that part of this informal banking was holding in his safe the money earned by Japanese prostitutes.  Takaki says there were three “Pink Hotels” in the area, what some called “The Main Street District,” and others called "Japan Town."  The women would bring the money to him for safekeeping but, given their fragile existence, some never returned to claim their earnings.

Furuya’s timing in Seattle could not have been better.  The decade between 1900 and 1910 saw Seattle’s population triple to nearly 240,000 people.  The Japanese population in Seattle doubled, to nearly 9,000.  By 1920, there were 100,000 Japanese in the western US, many of them business owners and farmers who wanted to buy familiar food and who needed financial services that they sometimes could not get from traditional white-owned banks.

Furuya’s growing businesses took more and more of the building.  In 1905, he established the Oriental American Bank, and in 1907 the Japanese Commercial Bank.  The latter bank, funded with $50,000, grew to deposits of $3,000,000 in just over ten years and was extremely profitable. 

Furuya employees at main entrance, perhaps 1913
University of Washington Collections
There were no vacations at Mr. Furuya’s enterprise.  There was one uniform for men – a black suit, called by the employees a Furuya suit, set off by a black tie.  The day started seriously and stayed there.  Some 50 employees would gather around Mr.  Furuya who would give an inspirational talk about Christian values and the ethical, frugal life.  Sometimes the employees would read verses from the bible.  The work day was early to late.  Some of the employees lived with the Furuya family in the ground floor of their spare, rental house on 8th Avenue, a street where the Seattle Housing Authority's Yesler Terrace now stands.  There was a cook and a servant.  They had two girls who went to Seattle public schools, Masa and Kimi.  Both graduated from the University of Washington.

He had two vices.  He was an unapologetic public nose picker, according to Takaki.  He would gather material from his nose while listening to someone speak, roll it into a manageable sphere, and flick it into oblivion using his thumb and forefinger.  His employees, out of earshot and eyeshot, more likely in a different state, laughed and called these “snot shots.”  The second vice was a lovely vacation home and Japanese garden on Bainbridge Island, built in 1905.  Like any Furuya project, it got big in a hurry.

Furuya House on Bainbridge Island, 1915
Likely an employee picnic
On six acres, it had a large greenhouse and several hot houses along 300 feet of waterfront looking across Port Orchard Bay.  He cultivated 5000 pots of lilies, chrysanthemums , cucumbers, tomatoes, had a large pond with a stone bridge passing over cruising Koi.  All the trees and flowers came from Japan and it became famous in the Japanese community.  He shared the house with his community and employees. 

Furuya knew that his success in the community depended on his relationships with the white community.  While his banking and grocery operations were focused on Japanese, his Japanese arts shop in the Chapin Building relied mostly on white customers.  While stern, his Christian faith did not close him down to others, but rather opened him up to many people in the community.  He made his Bainbridge Island place available to organizations of Japanese who celebrated their home towns in Japan and their interests in the northwest/  Many were University of Washington students.  He and two other Seattle businessmen, Tetsuo Takahashi and Tatsuya Arai, created a partnership that led to a major exhibit at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Expostion called the ‘Streets of Tokio.' Though it was taken up as a civic and cultural responsibility by the three, they made money on the project. 

Streets of Tokio
Frank Newell
UW Collections
The whole idea of the Pacific Rim as a geo-economic zone was growing, especially after the Japanese became a major power and soundly defeated the Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War.  Hundreds of Japanese came together in the Japanese Association Hall in 1905 at the Baker Building to celebrate the victory.  A Mr. Hattori, an advisor at Furuya’s company and a Princeton graduate, was a sought after speaker on the topic of the role of Japan and the significance of the Pacific Rim, particularly after it became known that Admiral Togo, the Admiral of the victorious Japanese fleet, was a friend of Hattori and wrote him a letter soon after he had crushed the Russians at Port Arthur.

While on a business trip to Japan in 1908, Furuya heard that the University of Washington baseball team was in the country playing, as the Seattle Daily Times described it, “the best nines of the Flowery Kingdom.”  This was a reciprocal visit after a 1905 tour of the US by Waseda, the top college in Japan, sponsored by Leland Stanford.  The Japanese teams, to the astonishment of a Daily Times reporter, played the game of baseball in complete silence.  Furuya hosted a visit by the UW team to Nikko, the great national park and shrine in Japan that is now a World Heritage Site. 

“You can never know Japan if you do not see Nikko,” he told the team at a banquet he threw for them. 

Furuya purchased the building in 1917 from Stetson.  By now, he was thoroughly establishment in Seattle, a respected member of the Chamber of Commerce and an honorary member of the United States Chamber.  A 1920 port directory described his offices stretching across the Pacific Rim – Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, British Columbia, Tokyo and Kobe. 

While the twenties were strong financial years for Furuya, there was a troubling cast to the decade, demonstrated by the tone of a congressional hearing held in Seattle in the Summer of 1920.

White River Valley Museum
Between 1890 and 1920 nearly 19,000,000 immigrants came to America, most of them at the low end of the class scale.  While Japanese immigrant numbers were nowhere near that volume – in 1920 they represented just over 100,000 on the west coast with 17,500 in Washington state and another 9,000 in Oregon.  However, many of them, like Furuya, were well up the class ladder and they had established several thousand Japanese businesses across the west and Japanese were farming considerable acreages to the detriment, some said, of Americans who were citizens, as well as returning veterans from World War I.

At the hearings, a Furuya manager, who also headed the Japanese Association, laid out the economic reach of the Japanese community – Japanese had ten percent of the dairies producing 18% of King County’s milk.  Japanese were 60% of the Public Market vendors. There were 282 hotels run by Japanese – a third of Seattle’s hotel rooms -- 186 grocery stores out of a thousand, 44 laundries, 73 restaurants and 23 shoe stores.  There were 806 Japanese children in elementary schools and 87 in High School.

The Anti-Japanese League President, businessman and publisher Miller Freeman, argued that the Japanese were depriving white Washingtonians of their rights and future opportunities.  Freeman saw the Japanese in the context not only local economics, but also in the politics of the Pacific Rim:

“To-day, in my opinion, the Japanese of our country look upon the Pacific Coast really as nothing more than a colony of Japan, and the whites as a subject race."

Congressman Isaac Siegal of New York questioned Jimmy Sakamoto, an American born high schooler testifying at the hearing, about his basic loyalties.  Did he not have an obligation to the Emperor to serve in the Japanese military after his 17th year?  No, Sakamoto thought he should join the American military if needed, and if they would have him.

Furuya with his wife, Hatsu and daughter Masa,
about 1907.  Masa became an excellent violinist.
UW Libraries
In June of 1928, Furuya gave one third of the shares he owned in his various companies, worth $300,000, to his 100 employees, something he saw as a capstone to his career and a marker of his Christian values.  Three years later, in 1931, he was broke, the Pacific Commercial Bank swept away by The Great Depression and shuttered, the savings of the Japanese community in Seattle swept away with it.  Indeed, every Japanese bank in the country failed within a few years of 1931.

Furuya tried to start again in Los Angeles, selling books.  His ventures failing, viewed with suspicion by his own community, he moved to Yokohama, his home town, where he lived simply in a small house and died in 1938.  The obituary in the Seattle Times mentioned his two daughters, successful University of Washington graduates who married successful University of Washington men, and were living in the Midwest and East, but did not mention Hatsu, his wife.

During World War II and after, the building was held by the Lutheran Compass Mission until purchased by the Masin Family in 1948.  The Masins were another immigrant family, from Latvia, and the patriarch ran a grocery store a few blocks east of Furuya’s building.  Purchasing a train car load of damaged furniture got him into the furniture business and he purchased the building from the Lutheran Compass Mission to set up a store.  His greatest generation son, Ben, became the leader of the company after returning from the Pacific where he served as a Marine Corpsman, wading ashore at Guadacanal, Guam and Bougainville.

Building in 1956
City of Seattle
Their building was tested right away by the 1949 Earthquake, still the strongest to hit the region since settlement.  It killed eight people and seriously injured many others. It also damaged the top two floors of the building just purchased by the Masins, breaking a gas line and causing a fire.  Pioneer Square now was in a down cycle and the repairs were expensive.  Losing a couple of floors wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to the family enterprise.  They, and some others in the district, removed upper floors. In 50 years, the building had gone from two floors to five floors and now back to three. 

Hotel Seattle
University of Washington Collections
The center of Seattle’s business district had moved North by then and Pioneer Square was targeted for parking.  The Occidental Hotel, later called the Seattle Hotel and owned by the Kubota family, was a flatiron building in front of the Smith Tower. In 1961 it had been abandoned and became the site of the sinking ship parking garage.  The sinking ship became a symbol for the coming demise of Pioneer Square.  Planning for the new multi-purpose Kingdome assumed large volumes of parking spaces would be needed nearby and suburban flight was an additional threat, commuters needing somewhere to put their automobiles during the work day. 

Ben Masin became the business leader of a coalition that teamed with Mayor Wes Uhlman to save Pioneer Square.  They fashioned an historic district and stopped the carnage.  For a time, Pioneer Square was the darling of the banks and projects had not only political but financial support.  The Masins sold the building in 2007 to a young Spokane developer, Rob Brewster and his partner, entrepreneur Michael Goldfarb.  Their plan was to add back the two stories and build out the interiors of the Corgiat and Furuya Buildings as office space.

Their timing could not have been worse.  By 2010, everything stopped when US Bank decided against releasing any more funds to the project.  It was a blow both to the project and a further blow to Pioneer Square.  Then, Mr. Goldfarb died.

At least it was the bottom.  Pioneer Square’s fortunes began to improve.  The housing development of the North Parking Lot in 2013 and 2014 is added more than thousand new residents in more than 700 units.  Adding new residents on Pioneer Square streets is creating demand for restaurants and other retail services. Gamers have flocked to Pioneer Square office space. One of the largest transit hubs in the country is in Pioneer Square and is a major convenience for commuters.  Well over half the people working downtown use transit.  Recently, Weyerhaeuser began constructing its corporate headquarters a block from the Pacific Commercial.

The tearing down of the Alaska Way Viaduct means a new waterfront for Seattle and Pioneer Square's will have its own beach and, likely, more housing.  Today, Pioneer Square is white hot. 

Money likes white hot.  A successor company to the real estate trust formed in 1989 after the sale of shipping giant Holland America Line purchased the loan from US Bank in 2013 and provided the funds to Mr. Brewster to finish the project.  In twenty years since his coming to Seattle, it is the first loan the real estate firm HAL has made in Pioneer Square.

So, that’s the place our company is headed, to a fourth floor spot with arched windows overlooking Waterfall Park, a place dedicated to the one-time Irish immigrants who started a little delivery company and called it United Parcel Service.  

It is a building that has many stories, and some of them even have happy endings.


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